This takes some kind of special nerve: New York City’s Education Department publicly released the rankings of 18,000 public school teachers based entirely on student standardized-test scores — after pleas from educators not to do it because it would be unfair and disparaging. And then it told the news media not to use the results to disparage teachers.
City education officials, after many months of pleas from educators and a legal case seeking to keep the scores private, released reports on individual teachers that show their schools and their ranks based on the gains that students made on math and English standardized tests over five years, through the 2009-10 school year.
The reasons that it is just plain wrong to make this information public — or use these results to actually evaluate teachers — are many. Among other things, standardized tests don’t generally measure high-order thinking processes, are often culturally biased, open to accidental scoring errors and deliberate cheating that skews scores, reduce teacher creativity and do not dependably predict student achievement.
Furthermore, teachers should not be held accountable for a bad test score by a student who comes to class hungry, sick, exhausted, mentally disturbed, distracted, unable to focus or a host of other conditions that have nothing to do with the classroom.
And there’s this: The methodology used to transform student test scores into assessments of teachers, called “value-added formulas,” are still new, unsophisticated and often unreliable. What these formulas purport to do is strip out all of the factors that go into a student’s test score and determine how much “value” a teacher added to the student’s achievement.
In a detailed critique of value-added models, John Ewing, president of Math for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving math education, warned: “Making policy decisions on the basis of value-added models has the potential to do even more harm than browbeating teachers.”
According to the New York Times, even one of the economists at the University of Wisconsin who designed the city’s ranking system, Douglas N. Harris, said that releasing the data right now “strikes me as at best unwise, at worst absurd.”
But why should anybody listen to the guy who actually built the ranking system?
This all helps explain why nearly 1,360 principals and more than 4,400 educators and concerned citizens from around the country signed onto a paper that attacks the state’s new teacher evaluation system — which requires that up to 40 percent of a teacher’s assessment be based on student standardized-test results.
The truth is that according to a new deal just reached by state education officials and the teachers union, some teachers’ assessments will be based entirely on standardized test scores.
This is a quote from a Feb. 16 release from the New York State Department of Education announcing that agreement:
“Teachers rated ineffective on student performance based on objective assessments must be rated ineffective overall. Teachers who are developing or ineffective will get assistance and support to improve performance. Teachers who remain ineffective can be removed from classrooms;” (emphasis is mine)
As noted by education historian Diane Ravitch in her New York Review of Books article titled “No Student Left Untested,” the fact is that for some teachers, “[t]he 40 percent allocated to student performance actually counts for 100 percent. Two years of ineffective ratings and the teacher is fired.” A teacher could have exemplary ratings for all other measures, but if the test scores are terrible, the teacher is rated terrible.
Today, people in New York smart enough to know better — people like, for example, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott, who went ahead and released the scores anyway. In fact, Walcott had the chutzpah to say upon the release of the rankings, according to the New York Times:
“I don’t want our teachers disparaged in any way, and I don’t want our teachers denigrated based on this information. This is very rich data that has evolved over the years.... I don’t want our teachers characterized in a certain way based on this very complex rich tool that we have available to us.”
Rich data? Who is he kidding other than himself?
Meanwhile, people in the Obama administration who should know better, including President Obama himself, have pushed for test scores to be a part of teacher assessment. And now states around the country are adopting these methods.
The U.S. Education Department likes to say that it actually supports “multiple measures” in teacher evaluation. But a system of “multiple measures” that includes standardized test scores and makes them important — and in some cases, as we’ve seen, exclusively important — is neither fair nor necessary.
There are high-performing school districts, such as in Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., where teachers are evaluated on a range of measures without standardized test scores in the mix — and the system somehow managed to get rid of ineffective teachers anyway. But these systems, under federal and state pressure, are nearing the day when they will have to change their educator evaluation systems to include test scores, even though these systems work just fine without them.
Segments of public education had enough trouble before standardized testing became the be-all and end-all of assessment in the era of former president George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and now, Obama’s Race to the Top.
With apologies to Neil Young, “Ooh, ooh, the damage done.”
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